This Valentine's Day, Tara and I decided to try Tarbell's. We'd heard many good things about it and had watched the Iron Chef America where Mark Tarbell slaughtered Cat Cora in Battle Apples. We'd asked our friends who'd been there what they thought, and were told it was very good, but not Oh-My-God! great. After dining there, we tend to agree.
It started out the typical Valentine's Day dining experience. We got there at 6:30pm on the dot for our 6:30pm reservations, and were told they were running about 15 minutes behind schedule. We expected this and given the fact that the whole bar area was packed like lemmings in an elevator, we decided to wait outside on the patio. Within a few minutes, nearly every table outside was full with people waiting. Fifteen came and went. We snagged a menu and looked it over while we waited. It was pretty much the menu online at their web site. Tara was in a fishy mood, trying to decide between the salmon or fish-of-the-day, striped bass. I was leaning towards the pan-seared ahi. This was all barring any can't-pass-up nightly specials. At one point, a car pulled up out front and an elderly gentleman got out. I was sitting right next to the door, and he asked me how long the wait was. I told him we'd been waiting for 20 minutes for our 6:30 reservation. Apparently his party of four didn't have reservations. He got back into the car and they left. After a half hour, I went in just to check on the status and our table was being cleared. Luckily, it was in the main dining room. The tables in the bar area have tall chairs and since Tara's legs wouldn't reach the floor, they would have been very uncomfortable for her. I went outside and before the door closed, one of the hosts called us and we were seated at our table.
The dining room was full except for a single table that was seated about a minute after us. Water glasses were brought out and we waited for a few minutes for a waiter to come by. We scoped out what meals we could see on the tables around us. Lots of pomme frites were in evidence. We saw one table get a nice-sized chocolate cake with ice cream on top. Lots of pizzas too. Eventually our server stopped by took our drink order. I had iced tea and Tara stuck with water. The only special was a beef tenderloin dish that didn't tempt either of us. Tara started with a wedge salad with blue cheese dressing and I got the seafood chowder. For main dishes, she stuck with the striped bass and I got the seared ahi. Our waiter, a very friendly guy who reminded me of Sam Elliott, asked how I wanted my tuna. I asked for medium-rare. He wrote it down and headed off. Some bread with a dipping oil was dropped off to keep us busy while we waited. The oil really had no flavor and the bread tasted exactly like the loaf you get at Mimi's Cafe. We both wished that they served Queen Creek Olive Mill's Olive Oil like Pizzeria Bianco does.
After a little wait, our appetizers appeared. Tara's wedge was indeed a simple wedge of lettuce with lots of blue cheese. She liked it, but said it needed bacon to give it some sort of contrast and to cut the blue cheese a bit. My seafood chowder was excellent. As our waiter described it, it's a New England clam chowder with some fish and mussels added, and that's exactly what it was. It was very rich and nicely seasoned. With the exception of the three mussels-in-shells, I cleaned up the bowl. Being VERY familiar with clam chowders for obvious reasons, this was about as good as any I've had. I had no complaints.
After we finished, our plates and silverware were removed and new ones brought. Our waiter stopped by and said he checked and our meal was about three minutes away. He no sooner said this when he turned around and nearly ran into the servers bringing our food. Tara's plate held a piece of striped bass on top of fingerling potatoes, beets, and a lemon caper sauce. She really liked it. My ahi was served on top of a slaw, with fried green beans and a ginger sesame sauce along the edges. I ate a bean and loved it. It was battered in what tasted like a really good tempura batter and was very crunchy. I then took a bite of the tuna and tasted salt. A LOT of salt. I tried another bite, and same thing. I dipped a piece in the sauce and still salt. Tara took a bit and even she, who loves salt, said it seemed to be overly salty. It seemed like something was wrong, so I stopped eating and tried to get our waiter's attention. Of course, he was busy and would look everywhere but in my direction. After five or ten minutes, I was able to snag him. I asked if the tuna was usually really salty and he said they did sprinkle it with salt. I told him it tasted really salty and he offered to have the kitchen make me another one. I said that would be great. He took it away and headed to the kitchen.
By this point, Tara had finished with her meal. Our waiter came by and brought me new silverware. A few minutes later, the busboy, seeing Tara done and me with no plate, started to clear our table. I stopped him when he started taking my fork and knife. He apologized. My replacement ahi was brought out by the floor manager or someone higher up I guess. This time there was definitely no salt. The piece was also about 30-50% larger than the original piece and cooked to a rare level. Not a huge deal, as I love sushi and eat tuna that way all the time. Unfortunately, the tuna was a bit bland without salt and the ginger sesame sauce was more savory and I like my ahi with a sweeter sauce. Still, it was good and I almost finished it but felt like I was about to burst. As a bonus, I got more of those great beans on the second dish too.
Our waiter brought the dessert menu and Tara and I looked it over. We'd seen several of the warm chocolate cakes with pistachio gelato and chocolate sauce be absolutely devoured. They also had some profiteroles with vanilla bean gelato that tempted us. In the end, we got the chocolate cake with a substitution of vanilla bean gelato. It was incredibly rich, definitely needed the gelato to cut the richness. Ground pistachios ringed the cake on the plate, which Tara made short work of. The chocolate sauce seemed to have an extra flavor component to me. I asked the waiter and he wasn't sure, so he said he'd ask in the kitchen. A few minutes later, someone came out and said the sauce was just chocolate, cream, and sugar. I thanked him and he went back into the kitchen. We enjoyed the cake, but there are other better ones to be had around town.
Service was outstanding for the most part. During the first half of the meal, our water and iced tea were filled frequently. Once Tara's plate was cleared, though, we never saw the water boys again. I had to ask our waiter for a refill before anything was done after that. Our waiter himself was great.
We waited for the check and finally our waiter returned. He said the whole meal was on the house since we essentially dined separately. We said that wasn't necessary, but he was adamant and left. Tara and I looked at each other, trying to figure out how to tip, as I only had $10 and her purse was in the car. I went out and grabbed $30 while she waited at the table. I put that down and we left. We both felt that the waiter didn't deserve to lose his tip, as he'd been stellar all night. Our bill would have been around $110 or so before tip, so we still made out well ahead of the game. It's hard to find customer service like that, especially on Valentine's Day. I thought maybe they'd comp my ahi or dessert for the inconvenience, but the whole meal?
All in all, the meal was good. Nothing stellar, but we certainly wouldn't have been upset if we'd actually paid for it. Would we go back? Hard to say. For a little extra money, there is some truly great food to be had in the same area. I guess time will tell.
3213 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ 85018